Monday, October 1, 2012

Puzzle Hunt Debrief: Cultists of Cthulhu (Part 1 of 2)

My friends Joe and Lauren first introduced me to the concept of the puzzlehunt a few months ago, and it seemed like a ton of fun. I hadn't been able to participate in one (this is apparently the "off season") until Joe and Lauren decided to host a mini-hunt at their house. The hunt happened last Saturday, and the rules were simple. Each puzzle was "open anything you want"--unlike pub trivia, the internet is completely fair game--but the necessary components to solve the puzzles were all present in the house.

The "theme" of the hunt was the Cthulhu mythos. Joe and Lauren are big fantasy/roleplaying/board-gaming fans in general, and fantasy-horror is one of their favorite genres. I'm not as up on Cthulhu as they are, which they assured me was totally okay; the worst that would happen was that I might miss a joke or two. Once everyone had arrived, we got a little back story: some cultists had tried to summon Cthulhu in Joe and Lauren's house. The cultists had been driven off, but some of their magics lingered still, and it was necessary to uncover a seal hidden somewhere in the house to completely cleanse the place of Cthulhu's taint.

Some of the rooms has been "sealed" already (roommates' bedrooms), and those were off-limits, but everything in the house was fair game. And it was decorated superbly: red streamers hung on the walls to suggest dripping blood, and we had a pan of "red herring" cupcakes to enjoy when the puzzles were getting the better of us. We were presented with a folder containing three clues and a useful translation guide for converting between various representations of letters, including numbers, Morse code, and (my personal favorite) semaphore. With that, the hunt was on! (It's important to note that we didn't actually understand the structure of the puzzles at first, but it makes more sense to organize the debrief by puzzle than by the chronological order of what we actually worked on.)

Puzzle 1: "The Evidence Against Him"

One conspicuous feature of the room was a plastic crate, chained and padlocked closed. The padlock, no pedestrian numerical lock, had four wheels, each with twelve letters, so it was obvious we needed a four-letter "word" to unlock it. The crate had a clue on top: "Julius would, it is said, sigh for play by the sea." The name Julius immediately struck us as significant; it's an uncommon enough name that it can only refer to a few things, and given that there were no orange drinks or basketball fans around, we narrowed it down to Julius Caesar pretty quickly.

The other part of the clue that jumped out was "sigh for play," which is just ungrammatical enough to draw attention. Our first inclination, which turned out to be totally incorrect, was to connect Julius Caesar with "play" and assume the puzzle was talking about Shakespeare, where"play by the sea" could refer to The Tempest. In a delightful coincidence, there happened to be a Shakespeare compilation on the bookshelf, though after opening to Julius Caesar and The Tempest and seeing nothing, we figured we were probably on the wrong track.

Eventually, after letting old Julius sit around for a while, someone tried saying the clue out loud, exactly like it suggested. Phonetically, "sigh for play by the sea" is a bit like "cipher 'play' by the [letter] C". Cryptography is not my strong suit, but fortunately the other puzzlers knew that a Caesar cipher is a simple cryptographic method. (Even if nobody had known that, another book sitting in the bookshelf would have described the cipher in more detail.) Encoding "play" by assigning "A" to "C" and so on gave "RNCA", the combination to the lock.

But that was only half the puzzle. Inside the crate was a cooler, and inside the cooler, there were five numbered "drug samples" (actually diluted apple juice) and five numbered baby shoes. The puzzle text instructed us that the prosecution had built a "truly strong" set of exhibits against one of the cultists, but it's possible he was "falsely hooked" into the whole business. We stared at the "drug samples" for a long time. We had (jokingly) suggested a while back that maybe we needed to drink the sample, but only resorted to it when Lauren asked us why we never followed through with our idea.

It turned out that two of the samples, the "truly strong" ones, were diluted not with water but with vodka. And four of the shoes used Velcro (a bunch of tiny hooks) to fasten. We assigned "true" to the vodka samples and "false" to the Velcro shoes, and after some serious prodding by Joe, eventually converted our "trues" and "falses" to binary and the binary to the corresponding letters. The letters spelled "he," the answer to the first puzzle.

Although the cryptography wasn't anything I necessarily would have picked up on, and putting a logical string into binary is surely more obvious to Joe (a PhD student in math) than to me, this was a really well-designed puzzle. The aesthetic of opening the padlock and having the chain crash to the floor was one of the most rewarding parts of the entire hunt.

Puzzle 2: "Party Atmosphere"

One of the clues we got at the very beginning was "It starts you up." "Okay, a key starts an engine--are there any keys around here?" Nope. "How about an alarm clock?" Nope. "Maybe it's just telling us to go upstairs?" We looked around up there for a while and actually did find a clue! But it wasn't the one we were supposed to find (more on this later). "Joe and Lauren drink a lot of tea, so how about we raid their tea cabinet?" Another clue! Also the wrong one. So "It starts you up" also sat around for a while.

A few hours later, Lauren brought her laptop into the living room where we were working. "My roommate is going to flip out if she has to listen to Sinatra for another two hours," she explained, and it was true--there had been a steady stream of Sinatra (and other contemporaneous crooners) playing since we'd started the hunt. But rather than simply stopping the music, Lauren chose to relocate it, which we took as a pretty big hint. We finally started listening, and noticed that each one of the songs had something to do with the moon--"Moon River," "Moonlight Serenade," and so on.

So we identified that "moon" was probably the answer to one of the puzzles, but we had no idea which one. Eventually our benevolent hosts relented and told us that we'd solved puzzle 2. It was obvious that "It starts you up" somehow led to "moon," but we had no idea how we were supposed to have gotten there.

After the hunt was over, we asked what "It starts you up" was supposed to have meant. We came closest with the stair idea but weren't being literal enough on the first part of the clue. "It starts you up" was intended to point us to the first stair, underneath which was taped the clue "you never listen."

Puzzle 3: "The Cure"

The puzzle we found upstairs when misinterpreting "It starts you up" was three mini jigsaw puzzles along with the clue "there's no missing pieces to my diagnosis." Two things became abundantly obvious as we put the puzzles together: there were in fact missing pieces, and the puzzles were going to reveal pictures of red herrings. Knowing full well that we might be wasting our time, we decided to put the puzzles together anyway because it was fun.

Upon finishing the puzzles, we had pictures of one, two, and three red herrings, with puzzle pieces worth of the letters "I", "L", and "L" missing, so the answer to the puzzle was "ill". The real question: how were we supposed to have gotten to the puzzle in the first place? The answer lay in the blood-dripping streamers. To our credit, we did have the idea that maybe something was written on the streamers, but we never thought that the streamers themselves spelled out a message. Taking a closer look, they weren't arranged at random heights (like we thought) but at exactly two heights, meant to represent the dots and dashes in Morse code. (Always Morse code.) The "blood" spelled out "Upstairs small cabinet" or something to that effect.

Given the spirit of the puzzle hunt, I feel a little bad about brute-forcing this one so thoroughly yet accidentally, but once we convinced ourselves that the streamers were mere decoration, we could have spent many hours looking at them before getting the idea to decode them. The puzzle itself was probably the most straightforward we encountered: put a jigsaw puzzle into a puzzle hunt, and clearly anyone's first instinct is to piece it together.

Check out the conclusion to the hunt in Part 2!